A short list of music to listen to when you can’t attend a concert

When not traveling or penning blogs for your publication, this writer serves as a serious-music reviewer for the international site, concertonet.com. Alas, traveling is forbidden these days. So are live concerts. Thus, I thought it would be fun to list some of the rare, exciting, highly emotional, highly original, very touching, and fearlessly inspired music I love so much.

I chose this for readers not especially occupied with “serious” music. (Not “classical” music, confined to the early 18th ) and most music may be unfamiliar. But mainly the works are short, are on YouTube, and their music can be found.

We begin with the so-called “father of opera”, which makes Claudio Monterverdi sounded dated. Actually, his operas were as emotional as Puccini, as melodic as Verdi, as dramatic as Wagner (who loved the 17th Century composer). His three existing operas are endlessly wondrous. But jump into the emotional waterfall with this arousing duet from L’incoronazione di Poppea “Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo.”

The classical counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky has made several recordings, one more seductive than the other. I (prefer the sensitive voices of Elin Manahan Thomas and Robin Blaze.) P.S. All of Monteverdi has that sensuous drama. If you get the words, listen to the pictorial madrigals. Or just Orfeo, which could have been written by Berlioz.

Those who have Glenn Gould’s rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and we all should or do) have a minor revelation with Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s Transcription for Strings. No replacement for Gould or Murray Perahia, but had Bach lived a century later, he might have appreciated this Late Romantic transcription. Sitkovetsky’s version for trio is even more sensitive.

One more transformation of Bach: Valentyn Silvestrov’s Dedication To J.S. Bach, written for violin–and vibraphone! The latter playing mainly in unison with the fiddle, it produces a shadowy and most strange effect.

Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Serenade, Opus 31 has a mawkish title. But guaranteed the music is sheer magic. Another misleading title is Luigi Boccherini’s Ritirata Notturna Di Madrid — especially in a wonderful arrangement by Luciano Berio. The original 18th Century composer presented a whole tone-poem of nighttime Madrid, the images searing.

Some more early images. Try La Guerre by the 16th Century composoer Clément Janequin. Or if that’s too martial, try his Les Chants des Oiseaux. In five minutes, the six singers imitate around eight different bird calls.

Opera arias? As a kitsch-lover, I can’t resist the end of Tosca’s first act. But these four arias stand on their own among the most luscious in all opera. First, enjoy Renée Fleming’s brilliance in Dvořák’s Song To the Moon. Then from a failed Mozart opera, Zaide, the elegiac “Ruhe Sanft, Mein Holdes Leben” (“Rest Gently, My Love”). I love Janet Baker (the first rendition I heard), but Lucia Popp is more emotional. Then Ms. Fleming again, this in Erich Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied from Die Tote Stadt. Breathtaking! And could one forget Maria Callas? Try her in Alfredo Catalini. (Who?) In “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally. You’ll never ask “who?” again.

Not from an opera, but Ravel’s Shéhérazade (not Rimsky’s) is a vocal/orchestral trip to the orient. The words are equally enchanting. Another time/space trip is a Stabat Mater by the astonishing Russian Vladimir Martynov. I like all his music, but the first half of this piece is remarkable. It could be 14th Century Byzantine, it could be 21st Century religious. It could be anywhere in between. Equally haunting is his The Beatitudes, heard in the film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). The same applies to the eternally heartbreaking take on Robert Burns’ My Heart’s In The Highlands by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

(Best yet is to get the complete sound track from the movie, with a grand panoply of composers.)

Two more landscapes. First Sir Edward Elgar’s In The South (Alessio), typically Edwardian triumphal paean to southern Italy. I am obsessed by all the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, but his great sun-scape, Helios Overture, is a symphonic poem as great as those of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He attached a poem to the score, but after one hearing, you won’t need it:

“Silence and darkness,

The sun rises with a joyous song of praise,

It wanders its golden way

and sinks quietly into the sea.”

If you like it, try his equally pictorial, equally emotional “An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands.” The brassy anthem is a Faroese folk song, “Easter bells chime softly.”

I visited Nielsen’s birthplace 15 kilometers south of Odense on the farm plains of Funen island, Denmark, and was greeted by a lovely smiling lady. “We have nearly 100 museums in this country,” she said. Then with (what I suppose was Danish) pride, “And this is the smallest of them all.”

Another landscape, by Pëteris Vasks, one of the most unusual in this group. His Plainscapes, for choir, violin, and cello depicts, I imagine his native Latvia by moonlight. 

Schubert Allegretto in C Minor, D.915, is an encapsulation of emotions. In less than four minutes, from minor to major to minor again. Don’t play this anywhere near other music. I admire how British pianist Paul Lewis plays the piece. Other composers simulate “sad” music, or (as in Tchaikovsky) wallow in the maudlin. Schubert’s is the most artistically real.

Did Schubert know he was dying? No way of us knowing. But the Adagio movement, the second, from his C Major String Quintet – the final instrumental music before his actual death – could give a hint. The whole 45-minute work is on top of Parnassus, but this single movement is…well, it makes one believe in some kind of God. The last sustained note goes from quiet to less quiet to quiet again. Something like life.

A personal note. When a very close friend suddenly died three years ago, I learned about it while visiting Montreal after trekking solo in northern Quebec. My first move was to visit the Chagall exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. When returning to New York, I closed all lights and put on this Schubert. The joy of Chagall, the depth of the Quintet served as momentary (if hardly satisfactory) catharsis.

Three works on death. Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is musical genius (only a single line of music repeated endlessly). David Lang’s Death Speaks is among his most delicate and touching pieces.

Too dispiriting for these days? Try the classic music of relentless joy, Fats Waller. Anything! (He was a great organist but those notes are a little heavy compared to the piano and voice.) Duets like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a classic parody with the incomparable Una Mae Carlisle. Or as a solo, with Waller’s fingers like a Raphael angel’s wing on the keyboard.

Two “Other” composers. First, the “other” Mozart, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, his son. The first three minutes of his Piano Concerto sounds like third-rate Daddy Mozart. Then comes the meat of the work, resembling Chopin three decades before the real Chopin. I love the jaunty final movement. Next the “other” Tchaikovsky, Boris. (No relation.) Everything by Boris is noisy, frantic, brilliant, and usually long. His The Winds of Siberia is a noble 15-minute introduction to the late composer’s work. You could be depressed by the start, but the end is a heavenly revelation.

Not finally– but even blog-pixels have a limit–the only music which needs the video. Actually, the final eight minutes of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony need nothing except great forces, a great conductor, and the notes. Now comes Leonard Bernstein. Only Philistines would accuse his conducting of “playing to the masses.”

Take a look at this video: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf5fM1i3MGQ). The two soloists at the beginning (Janet Baker and Sheila Armstrong-Jones) are fine. But when Bernstein starts the chorus for one of the grandest crescendos in the history of music (rivaled, perhaps by Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Eighth), keep your eyes on the screen. The music is heavenly, perhaps, but Bernstein’s face and the grandest of all choruses show humanity. A humanity which, for all its mortal duration, becomes an eternity in glory itself.

Bernstein’s conducting is far more infectious to his artists than any treacherous virus.


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